The environment and forestry ministry removed ironwood from the list of protected trees under the protests of oil palm corporation, even though it did not receive a recommendation from LIPI.
FOR the first time in his life, Effendi Buhing saw logs of ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri), on April 19, 2018. Before, the chairman of Kinipan Indigenous Community at Lamandau, Central Kalimantan, had only heard stories about the Borneo native timber tree, known to locals as ulin. “It has dark brown color,” he said in mid-November 2019.
At the time, Effendi (33) received a report from residents that a company was cutting down wood in the forest, which they claimed to be inside their indigenous territories. According to the report, the company was clearing the land to be turned into an oil palm plantation. Effendi rushed to the location.
There, he saw dozens of people cutting trees with trunks sizing more than one meter in diameter, and then hauling them into trucks. Other men were seen turning the logs into 10x10 centimeters and 20x20 centimeters lumber, each with a length of around four meters. Effendi was told that the trucks were going to Suja village, where the workers’ barracks of Sawit Mandiri Lestari were located. At the barracks, more piles of the dark brown logs could be seen. “Those were ironwood,” he said.
The truck that was carrying the logs unloaded them to one side of the barrack where the piles of logs were. The other truck that was carrying lumber dropped them on the other side of the barrack’s yard. Effendi was unable to give an exact estimate of the volume. “Thousands of cubic (meters), perhaps,” he said.
Effendi said that the logging location is part of Sawit Mandiri’s concession area, as stated in the company’s plantation business permit obtained on April 27, 2017. The concession status is valid, because the environment and forestry ministry granted the company usage rights on August 19 the same year.
As customary leader, Effendi repeatedly submitted applications for the customary land to be recognized as theirs. In 2016, he registered the Laman Kinipan area with the Customary Territory Registration Board in Bogor, West Java. He also sent letters to the environment and forestry ministry, and to the presidential staff office, requesting acknowledgement. It led to zero results.
Instead of excluding the customary land, Sawit Mandiri Lestari sent heavy equipments to the location in early 2018. The company cleared the land off of all wood, without exception. Meanwhile, for the indigenous people, the area was sacred as they highly respected ironwood trees, which rarely grew since the massive logging before the 1998 Reformasi.
Aside from the land conflict between the indigenous people and Sawit Mandiri, the ironwood logging practice came under the attention of environmental activists. Muhammad Ichwan, the campaign manager of the Independent Forest Monitoring Network, said that cutting down ironwood trees is forbidden as the species is protected by several regulations.
One of the rules is the Agriculture Minister’s Decree No. 54/1972 on trees in protected forest areas. Ironwood is also included in the red list issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a non-profit organization that focuses on nature conservation since 1998 and become a reference for the protection of endangered flora and fauna. “Ulin is on the list of rare and endemic plants,” Ichwan said.
But the red status and being listed as protected apparently do not fit the environment and forestry ministry. On December 28, 2018, eight months after Effendi caught the tree felling, Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya issued Regulation No. 106/2018 on protected plants and animals. Ten plants, including ironwood, were excluded from the list.
The environment minister has the authority to make a list of flora and fauna that are protected or can be freely exploited. However, Government Regulation No. 7/1999 on the preservation of plants and animals, stated that there are procedures to go through. These include getting a recommendation from a scientific authority, in this case the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). “We have not issued any recommendation for that list,” LIPI botanical researcher, Wita Wardani, said in early December 2019.
Wita said the ministry sent two letters to LIPI, asking for recommendations on the list of trees and animals that were no longer protected. The first letter was sent in October 2018. At that time, Wita said, the environment ministry asked LIPI to review nine types of plants, including ironwood, to be removed from the protected plants’ list in the Ministry Regulation No. 20/2018 published in June 2018.
Business people had protested against that regulation, on the grounds that they could not sell timber that had already been cut down because it was still on the protection list. They asked for five types of plants to be removed from the list. The environment ministry then wrote to LIPI on December 27, 2018.
According to Wita, LIPI had not yet conducted a study nor had they held a meeting to discuss the request. The next day, December 28, 2018, the Minister Regulation No. 106 was published. “We do not want ironwood to be removed from the protected list,” said another LIPI botanical researcher, Debby Arifiani. “But our justification was not accepted.”
In addition to its limited population, Debby said, ulin must be protected because of the massive exploitation of this wood in Kalimantan, such as for buildings’ frames. Ulin is the island’s endemic wood famous for its strength. “So, the economic value is indeed high,” Debby said.
The environment ministry was unwilling to provide explanations about the ironwood business. The ministry’s secretary-general, who also acts as director-general of sustainable forest production management, Bambang Hendroyono, declined to comment. “I’m busy,” he said on the sidelines of a seminar in Yogyakarta, February 27.
In mid-2019, Bambang denied reports that his institution was removing ironwood from the protected list without any recommendations. According to Bambang, the ministry had conducted a study before removing ironwood, allowing it to be exploited. “So, we did not remove it (from the list) without any basis,” he told reporters at the presidential staff office.
According to Bambang, the main reason for the removal of ironwood—and nine other types of plants from the forbidden-to-cut list—was because his ministry saw the annual work plans of companies that owned forest concessions. However, he ensured that even though ironwood is no longer protected, “the ministry will be selective in issuing wood exploitation permits.”
Wita Wardani said that there are no rules about sanctions if the ministry issued a policy without the recommendation of its institution. “Our obligation is to provide recommendations,” she said. “Maybe the ministry came to their own conclusion, because they thought LIPI was slow and at that time the conditions were urgent.”
The Indonesian Rare Tree Forum Chairman, Tukirin Partomihardjo, confirmed that there is no regulation requiring the environment ministry to comply with LIPI’s recommendations. The ministry, he said, is able to establish its own team of flora and fauna studies, to decide which species should be included or removed from the protected lists. “However, they should be objective, referring to recommendations given by scientific authorities,” said the retired botanist from LIPI.
It seems that Bambang had not heard about what happened in Lamandau. Sawit Mandiri Lestari had been cutting down ironwood trees long before the government even allowed its exploitation. Sawit Mandiri’s executive operation officer, Haeruddin Tahir, admitted that his company had been cutting wood in the concession area since they obtained a permit to use wood in 2015.
The company, Haeruddin said, had extended the permit in February 2018. The logging in April 2018 was carried out using the letter. “Therefore, in the process of land clearing, Sawit Mandiri could use the wood and we fulfilled all obligations required by the state,” Haeruddin said in a letter to Tempo at the end of November 2019.
Haeruddin also ensured that his company did not sell the ironwoods they cut. He said that all ironwoods that were cut down were used for plantation facilities.
To find out if Haeruddin’s claim were true, we asked woodcutters at Sawit Mandiri. One man, who wished to remain anonymous, said that he got paid Rp1.2 million per cubic meter from the ulin trees he chopped down. It was not Sawit Mandiri that paid him, but a timber baron from Batu Tambun, a village in Lamandau.
The logging area he worked on, he said, is located in the middle of a forest, in a hilly area rarely visited by locals. The indigenous people call it the Toin River area. The ironwood trees are located 30 meters away from a path created by Sawit Mandiri. According to the source, from there woodcutters transported the timber to Sawit Mandiri’s barracks—the one that Effendi Buhing saw—before they were taken to Pangkalan Bun, a city 195 kilometers away, by truck drivers of lumber industries.
Tempo followed the trucks carrying the ironwood. They stopped at wood shops around the city. Some shop owners say that the ironwood they sell came from ‘above’, meaning Lamandau. Toni, a timber trader, said he got his ironwood from Sawit Mandiri’s concession. “There are indeed many ironwoods,” he said.
Other traders said that they got ironwoods from many companies in Lamandau or other areas. As stated in the environment ministry’s Non-Tax State Revenue Information System (PNBP) data, there are 20 companies that utilize ironwood.
One of those companies is Mitrabara Adiperdana, located in Malinau, North Kalimantan. Based on the PNBP Information System data, the company produces 24.88 cubic meters of ironwood. But Mitrabara Adiperdana’s Corporate Secretary, Chandra Lautan, denied it, saying his company does not to process ironwood.
The company, Chandra said, only has coal production permit. “Outside of that, I cannot comment. But if, for example, there is ironwood, we don’t use it for commercial purposes. The lumber industry is not our arena,” Chandra said, asserting that they “Usually use wood for operational purposes.”
There is also Berau Agro Kusuma, which processes 217.12 cubic meters of ironwood. The company, which produces rubber in Berau, East Kalimantan, also has a timber utilization permit. When asked about the PNBP data, Siska from the company’s external division said that they “don’t produce wood, you got the wrong information.”